The Iran Crisis Is Forcing Trump Into Uncomfortable Territory

The president is fighting two impulses: not backing down against an adversary, and his aversion to a new conflict.

National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spearheaded the “hawkish” policy toward Iran. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty)

Americans know Donald Trump as a showman, business mogul, and politician. What they haven’t really seen is Trump in the role of commander in chief. That may be about to change.

A face-off with Iran led to a fateful choice Thursday night: hit back after weeks of escalating tensions between both countries that culminated in Iran shooting down an American drone, or back down.

At the last minute, Trump called off a retaliatory strike.

Trump explained his thinking in a series of tweets this morning. He said the United States was “cocked & loaded” and prepared to fire on “3 different sights” [sic]. Told that 150 people would die in the attack, Trump said he stopped it because the death toll wasn’t “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Nevertheless, Iran creates a dilemma for a first-term president who has never before held elective office or served in the military. He’s cultivated a tough-guy persona, someone who won’t let the United States be bullied. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” Trump tweeted last month. But Trump also made a campaign commitment to avoid bloody overseas entanglements that divert taxpayer money needed at home.

Iran is testing Trump in ways he hasn’t yet experienced, confronting him with fundamental questions. Is he willing to risk another war in the Middle East? Is armed intervention necessary to protect American interests? Who in the West Wing has his ear?

By ordering and then calling off the military strike, Trump risks looking indecisive, potentially emboldening adversaries who may conclude he won’t make good on blustery threats. His ambivalence was clear when he tried to downplay the significance of the downed drone.

Talking to reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump suggested it was all a misunderstanding. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”

What’s evident is that Trump is getting conflicting advice on dealing with Iran’s provocations. On one side are administration hawks led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in the past has called for military strikes against Iran to eliminate its nuclear program.

Last month, Bolton raised the specter of armed conflict when he presented Iran with a surprisingly broad ultimatum based on recent intelligence. He warned Tehran that “any attack on United States interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” (Shooting down a $100 million American drone would seem to fit that description.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Trump’s closest advisers, has spearheaded a “maximum-pressure campaign” to punish Iran for regional misbehavior and its support for proxies in the region.

Atop the more dovish wing is the president himself. In 2017, he threatened the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” over a series of missile tests. Now he entertains crowds with stories of the lovefest he says has broken out between the two—even though North Korea shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear weapons. Joe Yun, a former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy at the State Department, told us in a recent interview: “Trump’s basic cycle [is] he starts off with ‘fire and fury,’ he bluffs big, and then he settles. This is his M.O. in a lot of realms … I think we’ll see that, presumably, over Iran.” What Trump appears to want dearly is a replay of his North Korea strategy with Iran. And so he has repeatedly said he was open to negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as threats volleyed between both capitals. “We’re not looking to hurt Iran,” he told reporters. “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me.” (Yet he has also wavered on talks.)

Trump has launched cruise missiles into Syria, but his instincts are to avoid the sorts of messy Middle East conflicts that play out in perpetuity. He sees Iran as one such quagmire, former administration officials said. Hoping to reach an accord with Iran, Trump tasked one of his closest overseas allies, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with passing a message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the U.S. wanted to negotiate. In reply, Khamenei said, “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in the future.”

Speaking to us before reports of Trump calling off the strike, Steve Bannon, a former White House strategist and a top Trump-campaign adviser in 2016, said: “There are certain elements of the Trump administration that are pushing toward a bigger showdown with Iran.” He added that Trump is not “trigger-happy. He understands the elites and permanent political class are very good at getting you into situations and terrible about getting you out.” A senior Republican Senate aide said in an interview, “The last thing he wants is to start another Middle Eastern war. And, unfortunately, a lot of people around him are pushing him that way. You can hear the drums of war all over Washington.”

If Trump’s Iran policy seems to lack coherence, oscillating between warlike gestures and diplomatic overtures, it’s because the president has allowed staff divisions to flourish. Last year, he ousted a more moderate and internationalist-minded national security adviser in H. R. McMaster. He installed Bolton knowing full well what he was getting. “He has strong views on things, but that’s okay. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Trump said at a news conference last month.

Jim Mattis, who had been wary of military moves that would inflame tensions with Iran, resigned as defense secretary last year.

As the Iran crisis peaks, the next few days will say a lot about the impulses guiding the commander in chief: not wanting to appear weak in the face of an adversary versus a long-held promise to avoid yet another Middle East conflict.

Mike Giglio and Uri Friedman contributed reporting to this article.